Explained: Regulating OTTs and digital media in India

By Rishabh Shrivasatava

What is OTT?

OTT (Over-the-top) is a type of streaming service provided with the direct help of the internet. It bypasses the cable, satellite and broadcast-based traditional television platforms. It is the modern-day form of entertainment service. Examples of OTT are Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar, ALTBalaji, JioTV, MX player, Voot and more.

What’s the issue with OTTs and digital media platforms?

So far, OTT platforms have enjoyed a great degree of freedom and autonomy in terms of showing the content that they want to. Several of these OTT platforms have content that is inappropriate in terms of violence, language, nudity etc.

OTT platforms are not mandated to certify their content like Bollywood movies have to through the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) or newspapers through the Press Council of India (PCI). This has resulted in the streaming of shows like Paatalok, Mirzapur, Game of Thrones which are not at all appropriate to view for common households.

Similar to OTTs are digital media platforms providing online news and information on current affairs. At present, these digital media platforms also remain unregulated. As a result, several such online news and current affairs platforms have been found to be spreading fake, antinational and communal news items.

All this has time and again kept the debate of regulating the OTTs and digital media platforms alive.

What is the government planning?

It was on 15th October 2020 that the Supreme Court issued a notice to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) to establish an autonomous body for regulating OTTs and digital media in India.

As a response, on 9th November 2020 Government made some amendments to the Government of India (Allocation of Business) Rules, 1961 bringing OTTs under the ambit of government regulation. These rules help the government to allocate functions to particular ministries and ministries, in turn, can frame rules and regulations to manage those allotted functions. However, so far, no such independent body for regulating OTTs and digital media has been created by the government.

Have OTTs taken any measures till now?

The lack of moderation has not only given a hard time for the government but also to OTTs. People have come out in open and criticized OTTs for sharing inappropriate content in the public domain, without any restrictions. As a result, OTTs have adopted the concept of self-censorship i.e. taking steps at their own level to moderate the content and keep it safe from such criticism. It includes issuing maturity ratings, violence/language/nudity related warnings etc.

Moreover, in January 2019 all the major OTTs have signed the ‘Code of Best Practices for Online Curated Content Providers, 2019’ by IAMAI. MI further shared the second version of the code saw fewer signatories and many reputed OTTs refused to sign. The government has refused to accept any such code and has shown its interest in regulating the OTTs and digital media platforms.

What are contesting views?

The government now sees it imperative to intervene and regulate the digital media platforms and OTTs so as to ensure that content is moderated. The move is viewed to also minimize the ill effects of such inappropriate content on sensitive populations like children and elders, check the circulation of fake and communal news items.

Also, some experts have given the logic that for every kind of media, the country has an independent regulator, then why not for OTTs and digital media? But it is interesting to note that most of the media in India is self-regulated. These bodies issue standards that are more in the nature of guidelines.

For OTTs it is basically the content creators that are opposing the regulation. They feel that their space of art and creativity will be encroached upon by regulation and might conflict with the freedom of speech expression. Also, some see it as a move by the government to neutralize the dissenting content being shown by these streaming and digital media platforms.

What’s ahead?

With the government pretty set to regulate this new industry, advocates for liberty and freedom have called this a move aimed at moral policing and curbing the freedom of speech and expression enshrined under the Constitution. There remains a dual challenge for the government.

First, to bring legislation that does not encroach upon the creativity and artistic space of the creator and secondly, to ensure its implementation. Seeing the wide reach and involvement of a large number of stakeholders, implementation of the rules will be a major challenge.

Not to forget, the excessive restriction will not only hamper the work of a creator but will also spoil the business environment for OTTs and digital media which are currently thriving in India.

How are other countries regulating OTTs and digital media?

Singapore has a code of practices for OTT and a regulator in the form of Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), governing all forms of media. OTTs not prescribing to standards laid down in the code will not be allowed to stream their content. Some of the common rules include parental lock functions – where the content is not appropriate for children, displaying of ratings pertaining to nudity, violence and language, making reasonable efforts to ensure accuracy of facts etc.

In Australia also the OTT content remains under some degree of regulation. The Broadcasting Services Act, 1992 (BSA) regulates OTTs with provisions such as content classification and restricted access. However, the government is now working on tools for self regulation with platforms like Netflix. Similarly, United Kingdom has shown its urge to regulate the OTTs by setting up an independent regulator. However, at present, self regulation remains the accepted and prevalent norm for OTTs.

(Writer is an independent researcher and a communications consultant. He tweets at @Writer_Rishabh)

Featured Image Source: The Week

The Analysis (TA) is a research and communication group | Analyzing India’s legal, policy and political affairs. Write to us at contact@theanalysis.org.in

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